A radical reversal?
2022 BOOKS OF THE YEAR | Feminist authors reconsider the sexual revolution
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Caution: This article discusses topics of a sexual nature.
Modern relationship story No. 1: “Gayathri” (not her real name) is 34 and a law student in Maryland. She’s been in numerous sexual relationships with men, relationships that she thought were intimate in other ways, too, until the men suddenly disappeared from her life. She now says she hates men, that she has “just stopped thinking a relationship is even possible,” and that she has reconciled herself to being alone for the rest of her life: “I cannot waste any more energy.”
Modern relationship story No. 2: In a Reddit post, a young man tells of an experience with a “friends with benefits” partner—a young woman with whom he was having sex but with whom he did not have a romantic relationship. He had been “hooking up” with her for six months. He writes of his confusion when she “started crying like crazy” after he told her she wasn’t what he was looking for in a long-term girlfriend. “I don’t know what was going on,” he writes, “we never had a thing, she never talked about having feelings or anything.”
The first story is from Rethinking Sex (Sentinel 2022), by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba. The second is from The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century (Polity Press 2022) by New Statesman (U.K.) columnist Louise Perry. Neither book is one of the best books of the year, at least for Christian readers, and each has significant blind spots. But both books are part of what could become (if it continues) one of the best trends of the 21st century—secular feminists reconsidering the wisdom of the sexual revolution or at least aspects of it.
Emba and Perry are talented writers, and they skillfully describe a sexual culture that is making many young women miserable and even pressuring them to keep quiet about their misery because they’re supposed to like casual, commitment-free sex. Predictably, these young women become emotionally attached to men they have sex with, but the men don’t feel the same way about them. Emba presents story after story of women who are caught in this cycle and don’t know how to break out of it.
Throughout Rethinking Sex, she expresses a desire for a better way, and she comes excruciatingly close to finding it. She wants society to establish “some norm that allows most people to feel that their dignity is respected when they have sex”; she recognizes a need for “a better, more valid framework” for thinking about the ethics of sex; and she calls for a sexual ethic in which partners are concerned about the good of the other.
But then she undercuts her argument by dismissing the only framework and ethic that can accomplish these things: “Less casual sex doesn’t have to equal no sex until marriage—that train left the station a long time ago.” (Emba, who clearly understands the evils of pornography, expresses the same fatalism on that topic: “We’re not going to ban pornography—it’s far too late for that.”) Perry’s book is the more analytical of the two. She writes of a biologically inevitable “sociosexuality gap”—a desire for sexual variety that is vastly more prevalent in the male population than in the female population. (She attributes this to evolution.) Every society has to deal with the sociosexuality gap in some way, she argues: Prostitution has been a common method throughout history, and Perry details how terrible this is for the women involved. She has no patience at all for feminists who blithely defend “sex work,” apparently without realizing that the vast majority of prostitutes are forced into sex work either by their circumstances or by traffickers.
A healthy society would instead deal with the sociosexuality gap by placing social restraints on male sexuality and channeling it into monogamous marriage. (One result would be far fewer social problems.) But in the wake of the sexual revolution, the West has careened in the opposite direction. The “solution,” Perry writes, “has been to encourage women (ideally young, attractive ones) to overcome their reticence to have sex ‘like a man,’ imitating male sexuality en masse.” This was sold as liberating, but that was just a con, Perry argues, because it serves typically male desires instead of typically female ones. The feminist “liberators” are not standing up to powerful men, it turns out; instead, they’re catering to them.
“A sophisticated system of sexual ethics needs to demand more of people,” writes Perry, “and as the stronger and hornier sex, men must demonstrate even greater restraint than women when faced with temptation.”
This is something early feminists understood: “‘Votes for women, chastity for men’ was a real suffragist slogan, now forgotten,” Perry writes. Today’s feminists talk crassly about the evils of “slut shaming” (that is, criticism of permissive sexual behavior among women); but earlier feminists practiced something like that with regard to men (stud shaming, perhaps?)—and it was a much healthier form of feminism for women and for society.
Look at what modern feminism has instead produced: a society in which the Reddit poster mentioned earlier didn’t even realize how dishonorably he had treated his “friend with benefits.” After all, the prevailing culture insists that there aren’t any important differences between men and women and that Reddit Man’s female friend would naturally want six months of meaningless sex just as much as he does. What in the world is she crying about?
Emba and Perry are certainly not conservatives, and some of their advice is only marginally less dysfunctional than the culture they critique. Perry, for instance, supports same-sex marriage. She tells young women that for their own protection they should “get drunk or high in private and with female friends” (instead of with men around). She also advises young women to refrain from having sex with a new boyfriend “for at least a few months.”
But reading Emba and Perry is a lot like reading Jordan Peterson, a comparison they may not like. They don’t have a Biblical outlook, but through common grace they are able to state truths that were once common sense but are today revolutionary. (An Emba chapter title: “Some Desires Are Worse Than Others”; Perry: “Loveless Sex Is Not Empowering”; “Marriage Is Good.”) Be forewarned: a few chapters contain frank language and disturbing images. Still, like the rest, they advance a much needed argument that, if it takes hold, might redirect secular thinking on sexual ethics, and rescue women and girls from emptiness and despair.
If these books are harbingers of a new debate opening within secular feminism, then they could prove to be two of the most important books of 2022.
This article is part of WORLD’s 2022 Books of the Year special issue.
Previous Books of the Year
- What About Evil? / Scott Christensen
- Return of the God Hypothesis / Stephen C. Meyer
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge / Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart
- The Good American / Robert D. Kaplan
- Gentle and Lowly / Dane Ortlund
- The Mystery of Life’s Origin / Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, et al.
- Divided We Fall / David French
- After the Last Border / Jessica Goudeau
- The Year of Peril / Tracy Campbell
- Free to Believe / Luke Goodrich
- After ISIS / Seth J. Frantzman
- The Thirty-Year Genocide / Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi
- American History / Thomas S. Kidd
- Working / Robert A. Caro
- Darwin Devolves/ Michael J. Behe
- J-Curve / Paul E. Miller
- The Wizard and the Prophet / Charles C. Mann
- The Once and Future Worker / Oren Cass
- No Turning Back / Rania Abouzeid
- A Nation Forged by Crisis / Jay Sexton
- Therefore I Have Hope / Cameron Cole
(For a full list, see WORLD’s Books of the Year page.)
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